From K-12 Outreach to K-16 Collaboration
Fifteen years ago, when I first began working with K12 history teachers, the standard term used to characterize such activity was K12 outreach. As a participant in the History Project at UC Davis—one of the 19 subject-matter sites established by the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP)—I believed that what I had to offer K12 teachers was my scholarly expertise. I would lecture to the teachers—treating them essentially as returning college students—on historiographic developments, and they would (I thought) return to their classrooms enriched by what I had to tell them. At summer institutes, Saturday workshops, and periodic conferences, I delivered lectures on such subjects as History and Literature, Mainstreaming American Women’s History, and Teaching the History of Everyday Life. I was dimly aware of the fact that my late colleague Roland Marchand was working very differently with K12 teachers, on a model closer to what happens in K12 classrooms: discussions, collaborative projects, roleplaying exercises, and model lesson plans. But it took me several years to register the significance of that different approach.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by people—not just Roland Marchand, but a talented corps of K12 teacher-leaders in Northern California—with a more sophisticated, and far more promising, understanding of our work. Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was co-writing a grant proposal with Nancy McTygue—then Director of the Davis History Project, now state-wide director of CHSSP—she quietly corrected my invocation of "K12 outreach" by substituting the term "K16 collaboration." And that simple change of phrase struck me as loaded with important implications for what I—and, I was beginning to realize, we—were trying to achieve. "K12 outreach" implied that the important players (the real agents of the work) were located inside the university, and had to reach out to others (the objects of the work), in a movement resembling missionary activity. That term thus reinforced the presumed boundary separating so-called "higher" education from primary and secondary education, and underlined the intellectual authority of those doing the out-reaching. By contrast, "K16 collaboration" worked to dissolve that boundary, to distribute authority to all participants, and to suggest that historian-teachers at all educational levels stood to benefit from the partnership.
This change in terminology might have gone unnoticed had it not captured some important insights I'd been having during my early years with the Davis History Project. In lecturing to K12 teachers, I had initially drawn a distinction between myself as research scholar and them as teachers. But I was waking up to the fact that I too was a teacher—in many cases, a less effective teacher than the K12 teachers I thought I was teaching. And I was realizing as well that they too were research historians, tracking down evidence, identifying questions and problems, interpreting findings, crafting arguments, working towards synthetic overviews—and their chronological range was often greater than mine. Our lives as teachers and researchers are structured very differently, but we have far more in common than I had initially realized. Confronted with a common teaching problem—"How should we integrate the small histories of everyday life with the grand narrative of political history?" or "What's the best way to get our students to read the Declaration of Independence closely and thoughtfully?"—we have much to offer one another when we structure our work as K16 collaboration. The Teaching American History grants make it possible for historian-teachers at all levels to explore both more widely and more intensively than ever before the possibilities of K16 collaboration.
And the impact of that collaboration on my own classroom teaching has been dramatic. I began to move away from what learner-centered education proponents call the "sage-on-the-stage" model of teaching towards the "guide-on-the-side." I have learned the value of pedagogical variety, and particularly the cultivation of different teaching modalities for different types of learners. I have a new appreciation for the value of kinesthetic learning: rearranging chairs for in-class discussions, taking trips to museums and historic sites, attending movies and plays with my students. In my classrooms, I have come to privilege academic history less, and public history more; and I now try to identify potential K12 teachers among my students, to encourage their interest, and help prepare them for their own classrooms. I have learned the value of collaborative research towards a single larger project, such as a public-history installation or a website.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from K12 teachers is that it's not enough simply to take responsibility for my teaching of students: designing a good syllabus, delivering polished lectures, asking big questions, transmitting information and ideas. The K12 teachers I've worked with have taught me to take responsibility for my students' learning: they must pose their own questions, design their own ways of tracking down answers, and make their own discoveries. Then they, in turn, must teach their findings to one another. I am only beginning to understand the full implications of this shift in responsibility, which will occupy me, I believe, for as long as I remain a teacher. What is clear is that the vehicle that has brought me this far is not "K12 outreach," but "K16 collaboration."